Tag Archives: shoulders

Better than the cure

The New York Times is on another yoga binge, putting out stories on Ana Forrest’s niche appeal and former Cornell basketball players doing yoga during off-season, to mention the most recent ones. Jane Brody has a column about Ancient Moves for Orthopedic Problems mentioning the work of Loren Fishman, a physiatrist — a specialist in physical and rehabilitative medicine affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital. I’ve already used the modified triangle headstand posture to get my shoulders aligned. His longer referenced article is available (PDF, 1.76 mb) from a special issue of Topics of Geriatric Rehabilitation (April/June 2011 – Volume 27 – Issue 2, pp. 93-166) on yoga as therapy.

I was even more struck by what Fishman writes in the Foreword of the special issue:

There are few therapies that boast about their side effects. Both medicine and surgery are undertaken because there is a favorable cost-benefit or risk-benefit ratio. The 2 (sic) are placed on opposite sides of the balance of good judgment. In yoga, the side-effects, irrelevant to the actual reasons for its initial adoption, may turn out to be more to the practitioner’s advantage than the primary therapeutic effect! Almost any style of yoga brings with it reduced blood pressure, less obesity, and less back pain, improved range of motion, safe strengthening, reduced asthma and reduced anxiety, better recovery after surgery and chemotherapy and almost stunningly low cost.

Fishman is no stranger to yoga: he practiced in India for three years before going to medical school and has co-authored books on Yoga Therapy. He has a website on sciatica and has several audios of conversations and courses on YogaU.com.

Stiffing myself in handstand

Easing into the pose, with Desiree's help

Last night at the hatha yoga class at Thrive, we were working towards handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana), Peacock (Pincha Mayurasana)  and other inversions. I’ve learned that I can get into a handstand if I don’t think about it too much. Last night, my head was in overdrive so I only made it up once in eight tries. Not too good.

What I did right was slow down and try to understand why it was so hard for me. I have always had tight shoulders and that was the easy explanation, but feel short of allowing me to visualize what was happening. I tried to see myself with my eyes closed going through the prep from down dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) and then the kick up.  I saw that my shoulders were locking up well before getting vertical. That meant that my legs were always going to be 10-25 degrees off from vertical. The only way I could get into handstand was my throwing my butt into the wall.

I had this image of fighting against myself, like arm wrestling: between gravity and my own resistance, I was bound to lose. I also sensed that it was more than just inadequate arm position. My whole rib cage was tightening up, and that was hampering my breathing. No wonder I found myself fighting to regain my breath after a half dozen attempts to kick up.

This new awareness also confirms something else: under stress, my shoulders tend to hunch up, a type of shrug in which my neck gets shorter as my rib cage rides up my spine.

Another curious angle is that in wheel pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana), which also requires a broadened chest, loose shoulders and arms shutting up (down, really) by the ears, I don’t have an issue with getting locked in a compromised position, after five years of struggles. I think I am aided by the nature of the pose, which requires me to arch against the muscular tension in my chest, shoulders and back.

Note: the photo above is from a Rumbaugh workshop at Thrive in January 2009, not last night’s class.

Like a different body

I’ve begun to notice changes in my body during my yoga practice. For instance, last night when I was in Warrior II, I was able to move my shoulder blades closer together and further apart independent from my pose. My arms felt lighter and more free. A month ago, my shoulders and scapula seemed to be one solid block of bone and muscle — roughly the equivalent of a clinched fist. I’ve commented here before, about getting really fatigued in Warrior II because I seemed to be fighting against myself as well as gravity.

There are other small changes that I’ve discovered. To prevent myself from trying too hard, I used props as supports (a block under my hand in Half Moon, for instance) so that I did not go too far. I’ve tried to remove those artificial benchmarks and explore where my body takes me know. I’ve been surprised. Last night, I skipped the block in Half Moon and accepted the balance with my hand to the floor.

Loosening the grip on my shoulders

Photo: Bloom against a tropical backdrop
An Anusara teacher traveling all over the world

I had a great inversion workshop Jordan Bloom at Thrive Yoga today. Jordan is a gifted Anusara instructor who’s based in the DC area, but travels around the world. I can tell why he is such a popular teacher. He spent a lot of time dealing with the basic truths of alignment, building gradually so that when it came time to “invert,” it was relatively easy to take the plunge. For me the key was working on my shoulders. One of the first pose that he had us do was a deep lunge with arms stretched above the head. Jordan then had us repeated take our shoulders further back and then reach the arms higher and toward the back. Each time, I got a little deeper back bend. But then, Jordan came behind me and gently pulled my shoulders back even further. It was not a forced pressure, more like the touch used in breaking an egg shell. I could feel the knot of muscle between my shoulder blades dissolve. Once I knew where to focus my efforts, I was able to work on bringing my shoulders back in other poses, like downward-facing dog. The three-hours of the class went flying by.

Another adjustment that Jordan made was for me to widen the placement of my hands on the mat in poses like downward and updward dog, chataranga and other prone poses. He said that the middle of my hand should be even with the outside of my shoulder. That put the little finger of my hand of the edge of the mat and my ring finger running parallel to the edge. They don’t make yoga mats wide enough for many men. This adjustment also helped me broaden my shoulders.

Jordan will be coming back to thrive for a three-day workshop in February next year.

A blindspot in the bodyscape

I have the habit of taking inventory during class. As I progress through the warmup, the sun salutations and other vinyasa, I take mental notes about the areas that I need to work: I need to work on the form of my leap forward from downward facing dog; I need to strengthen my core; I need to work on flexibility in my shoulders, etc. After three years of yoga, I already know the list by heart. And when I go home, I can possibly fit all these areas into a single practice.

What I’ve started doing, instead, is to identify one thing from my class that I can take into my home practice and make it mine. For instance, in a class at Thrive Yoga with Lisa Johnson, she had us push ourselves up from dolphin to down dog. In other words, from resting my weight on my forearms to resting on my hands and extended arms. It was surprisingly hard to lift myself up. It was like having a blind spot in my bodyscape. It was clear that my body had never consciously done that movement before and did not know which muscles to contract and there was also a physical weakness in that spot.

So now, whenever I find myself in dolphin pose, I try to fit in a few reps of pressing up to down dog. As to my “one note” per session, once I have found my “discovery,” I can then get back to focusing on my movements and alignment, and practice acceptance of where I am in my personal evolution.

Linking fingers

Nearly two months of working to loosen up my shoulders and upper torso have paid off. I was able to touch my fingers in Gomukhasana or Cow Face Pose. This pose requires you to put one arm behind your head and bring the other one up your back and touch your fingers somewhere between the shoulder blades. In the past, I’ve been using a strap. But on Wednesday at Flow Yoga, I was able to join my hands (really tips of my fingers). This pose requires you to loosen your shoulders and also flex your upper back.

By the way, my first yoga teacher, Andrea Franchini, had an appendectomy last Friday, the same day that the NPR radio feature came out with her giving instructions to my class — setting the context, as they say in the radio biz — I guess. Convalescing, she’s probably had plenty of time to listen to the story. I’ve heard that she’s doing fine and is itching to get back to her classes.

Shoulder blades – heart opener

Let me add to the list of improvements (The Morning After) to my posture that I have noticed since my yoga retreat. I mentioned that my standing pose — tadasana — seemed to fit together more neatly and naturally. An additional aspect is that my shoulder blades are more closely drawn together and pulled towards the waist. This adjustment pulls my shoulders back and expands my rib cage — I guess, this is what is meant by a heart opener. It also makes it a lot easier to keep the rest of the torso in place.